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A venerable bit of wisdom from the Greek sage Heraclitus teaches that you can never step in the same river twice, for neither you nor the ceaselessly flowing river remains the same. Your odds are better at restaurants, which also change, though not quite ceaselessly. (I am extrapoutf8g from Heraclitus here; if the man ever made remarks about restaurants, posterity has forgotten them.) Crowds come and go, of course but decor and menu can remain little changed for months or even years. In a restless culture, such stability can seem boring or even slightly sinister, a dawdling on the way to some new and improved destiny. Yet there are those of us who like our points of reference.
Destino, which opened a little more than seven years ago in a boxy storefront space previously occupied by a pretty good restaurant called Dame and just a few steps from an ugly freeway overpass, has now donned the mantle of "bistro." Also, the overpass is gone demolished a few years ago per the edict of some ballot initiative. I would describe both of these developments as improvements, though Destino was always a bistro, really and is still serving "nuevo Latino" food while the demise of the overpass failed to produce the expected utopian decline in auto traffic, which now whizzes in every direction at ground level. Let the walker beware.
Once safely inside Destino, the walker will find the restaurant's look barely altered from its early days. The color scheme is still golden-ruddy, with shades of copper and umber on textured walls, one of which continues to be hung with three large, ornately framed mirrors. The keepers of the bar just inside the front door are young and rakishly handsome; apart from their black garb, they're scarcely distinguishable from the clientele, whose clothes are tepidly polychromatic in that rich-hipster way, with plenty of untucked, close-fitting shirts in pale blues and grays and many, many fancified versions of those Italian bicycle shoes. Would someone please turn the page? How about a designer version of ski boots, in two-tone Italian calfskin?
Chef-owner James Schenk's latest menu includes a prix fixe offering, three courses (with a couple of choices at each stage) for $31.95. Not a bad deal. The bill of fare also emphasizes tapas these days, perhaps in part because smaller, shareable dishes are more consistent with the social style of the young, who (I would guess) prefer less hierarchy at the table as elsewhere. The prix fixe, by contrast, is hierarchy embodied, and, as I am a flinty-eyed hierarchist, I regularly submit to its charms.
Item one: a chile relleno, though not the usual kind, batter-fried and slathered in melted cheese. Here the presentation was more subtle; the pepper, a crisp poblano, was charred and skinned, then filled with Niman Ranch ground sirloin, sauced with a creamy chipotle salsa, piped on top with crème fraîche, and plated in sections, for easier eating. Across the way, the ceviche hound was tucking into a martini glass filled with Asian-inflected ceviche: the Destino Chino ($12.50), a medley of yellowtail tuna and tiger prawns glistening with lemongrass oil and wearing a pleasantly assertive perfume of ginger. The hound could have had ceviche but not the Destino Chino within the confines of the prix fixe; a larger issue was that the fixed menu's main courses didn't appeal.
They all appealed to me, on the other hand, and I was particularly glad to find a lighter entrant among them: a pastel of quinoa the couscouslike grain of the ancient Inca tossed with Peruvian artichoke hearts and topped with a crisscrossing of romesco salsa, a rouille look-alike. The dish, served in an earthenware crock, could easily have been passed off to the inattentive as some kind of couscous casserole.
Soon after we were seated, the hound could be seen briefly flirting with the prix fixe because, in the dim light, our failing eyes had misread "Duart" (as in Loch Duart, farmer of salmon) as "duck." When not snapping up ceviche, the ceviche hound is a duck hound. But, on a squinting review, we discovered our error and were chastened. The evening's poultry choice turned out to be chicken, in the form of aji gallina ($18): shredded flesh bathed in a creamy sauce of aji amarillo (a kind of chili pepper) and served with home-style yucca fries. The chicken was lovely; the fries slightly less so. They were crisp but underseasoned and mealy inside, and I wondered if they wouldn't have been better if they'd been cut to a slimmer profile.
The gold standard for Peruvian cooking in this city seems to be, by my informal but emphatic tally, Mochica. Destino is good; its aji de gallina is delicious but Mochica serves a mean aji de gallina too, and unseating Mochica from is perch of preeminence is going to be a wicked project for somebody. Pretenders to the throne might do some of their strategic pondering over Destino's excellent churros y chocolate ($7) a trio of ridged, torpedo-shaped, cinnamon-scented beignets suitable for dipping into a demitasse full of warm chocolate sauce though those with long memories might respond to the suspiro, a dulce de leche treat that's been on the menu for years. Hip 30-year-olds in tight shirts have to be concerned about their figures, of course (irrespective of sex), but Destino's desserts aren't especially fattening, and anyway you can always walk it off, taking care to look both ways all ways always.*
Brunch: Sun., 11 a.m.2 p.m. Dinner: Mon.Thurs. and Sun., 510 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 511 p.m.
1815 Market, SF